A few thoughts on two recent reads that deal with difficult subject matter. I’ve just finished The Watch Tower by Elizabeth Harrower. Set in Sydney in the 1940s, it’s a compelling psychological novel centring on a manipulative and abusive relationship. The novel begins as sisters Laura and Clare Vaizey are withdrawn from boarding school by their emotionally distant mother Stella following the death of their father. Living with her in straitened circumstances in pre-war Sydney, the sisters are soon running the household for their apparently fragile and impossible to please mother. Stella, to the reader, is patently only interested in herself, and cynically thwarts the girls’ modest educational ambitions. When war breaks out, Stella decides to return home to England, leaving the teenagers to fend for themselves. Laura, the elder by 5 years, is near enough cajoled into marrying the boss of the factory where she works, the much older Felix Shaw. He paints this as the perfect solution, Laura and Clare moving into the spacious harbourside home he’s just bought. From this point the novel gets darker and increasingly claustrophobic, as Felix descends into alcoholic outbursts and physical and mental abuse, alternating with episodes of civility and pseudo-generosity. Laura makes excuses, blames herself, tiptoes around Felix. Clare feels trapped and unable to leave, even as she carves a sliver of independence for herself as she gets older, for fear of what would happen to Laura. She practices a kind of passive resistance. This all sounds like grim reading, and it is often painful, but never indulgent or wallowing. The writing is sharp, full of spiky sentences and occasional narrative jumps. There is also a side serve of social satire – the brash neighbours discussing the ruckus next door as they get ready for an evening out; the faux mateship of Felix’s business partners, who always get the better end of the deal. And Harrower reveals how the veneer of domesticity is used to disguise the true nature of the relationships in such an ideal suburban home. The Watch Tower was first published in 1966 and I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t heard of it, nor of Elizabeth Harrower, until my sister sent me the Text Classics reprint from 2012. As an insight into destructive self-deception and power control in relationships it is still as relevant today as when it first came out.
As I was reading The Watch Tower I kept thinking about Ivy Alvarez‘s Disturbance, a novel in verse that I read in one sitting earlier this year. This is an unflinching account of a double murder and suicide, domestic violence meted out in a wealthy, respectable home. We hear the story from different viewpoints – neighbours, relatives, the police, journalist, husband-father-perpetrator, wife-mother-victim. Alvarez gets behind the headlines, giving voice to the many people affected by such an incident. Though the surface of many of the poems is factual – lists, interviews, statements – the cumulative effect is very powerful. The poems crackle with sharp detail – the salty taste of blood, a dark stain on the carpet, ‘saucers cracking against cups’. Themes of control and power, inevitably, run through the book; and Alvarez is forcefully in control of this dark material. Individual poems such as Jane’s to-do list, Notes to self and See Jane run stick in the mind, so taut and so chilling. But for the full, devastating impact you need to read Disturbance from beginning to end in one go. It will stay with you.